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Socheata Soem found her American dream staring back at her from a Spartanburg Community College marketing brochure.
“Right there on the cover, with all these other smiling faces was this Cambodian kid,” Soem said last week. “And I said, ‘Well if he can do it, I can do it.’ ”
A native of Cambodia who immigrated to the United States in 2009 as part of an arranged marriage, Soem, 29, spent some five years working her way to a two-year nursing degree at SCC, before graduating in 2018.
She had to learn the finer points of the English language along the way, scored scholarships before she was done and even juggled a pregnancy toward the end of her education.
“I don’t think it was ever easy for her,” according to Charlton Williams, Coordinator of Advising Services at Spartanburg Community College. “But she was a perfectionist and she was driven and she ultimately got it done. I’ve just been overjoyed at all she’s accomplished.”
Born in Cambodia, both of Soem’s grandfathers had died during the turbulent years during and afer the Cambodian Civil War, which raged from 1967-1975.
Communist leader Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge came to power in 1975, and over the next four years an estimated 1.5-3 million Cambodians - up to a quarter of the population - died due to violence, uprisings and political upheaval.
About this series
This week, the Herald-Journal will present profiles of people who have had to overcome obstacles in life in a series called Overcoming Obstacles.
Soem said she remembers her early life as one where she was constantly facing harsh realities. She started working at five or six years old, she said, and by age 10, was making the half-mile trek on her bicycle each morning to the local market to help her parents out for the day before heading to school.
“You do what you have to do and that’s just life,” Soem said. “But looking back when things get tough, you also realize, hey I’ve been through some stuff before.”
In her late teens, Soem said her parents’ relationship with another family in the United States resulted in an arranged marriage, a custom she said roughly half of Cambodia still adheres to.
She came to the United States in 2009 to be with her husband and his family and said she stepped onto U.S. soil and entered a different world.
Despite a decade of English education back home in Cambodia, Soem said she was shocked to realize once she arrived how difficult communication was with everyday Americans.
But she adapted fast and said her mother-in-law at the time had recently graduated from college only a few years before Soem’s arrival to the United States.
“She was still receiving all this mail from colleges, though, and I saw one from Spartanburg Community College that featured this Cambodian guy,” Soem said. “I said well I’m not any different. If they can feature him in the book, I could be in the book one day.”
Nursing seemed like a degree that would allow her to help people, she said, and even though she was already working at a nail salon in Greenville, she dived in at SCC.
More than 9,000-miles from her homeland, Soem found herself fighting back tears more than once during her classes.
In class, she would ask questions despite knowing her accent would often prompt laughter from other students.
“I wanted to cry, too, because I still felt that,” Soem said. “The teachers wouldn’t laugh but I would hear the students. I’d wait until I got out of class, but yeah, sometimes I cried.”
Williams said she met Soem while teaching an introductory college course at SCC. That laid the foundation for a relationship that has lasted years.
“She was always staying after class,” Charlton said. “A perfectionist, she was also getting frustrated because things weren’t coming easy for her. But she always wanted to know what she could do better.”
Charlton said the biggest change she saw in Soem over time, was Soem’s willingness to accept, “good enough.”
“When you get into the nursing program, those grades aren’t going to come easy,” Charlton said. “They don’t for anybody. So I think when she made peace with the fact that, OK, don’t beat yourself up because you got an A instead of an A+, things started to come together for her.”
Cheri Anderson-Hucks, SCC’s Director of Marketing and Public Relations, said not only did Soem’s efforts pay off with a nursing degree, she also ended up being featured in some of the college’s marketing materials.
With a young daughter to care for, Soem said she’s focused her current efforts on building up a nail salon in Boiling Springs.
She’s not given up on her nursing dreams, however. She said she wants to go back to school, become a nurse practitioner and one day own a medical spa.
“I feel like here, everything you do is rewarded,” Soem said. “It won’t always be fun, but I feel like it will always be rewarded.”